Missouri Supreme Court ‘renounces’ use of photo with judges to promote Schmitt

Picture taken during official event shows up in mailer promoting Missouri attorney general’s Senate campaign

By: - June 17, 2022 4:34 pm

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, second from right, poses with, from left, Missouri Supreme Court Judge W. Brent Powell, Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson and Judge Mary R. Russell in August 2021 during the state’s bicentennial celebration. The court has renounced the use of the photo in a campaign mailer promoting Schmitt and referred the issue possible ethics violations. (Attorney General’s Office via Facebook)

The Missouri Supreme Court on Friday said it had reported the use of an officially produced photo of three court judges with Attorney General Eric Schmitt for possible ethics violations after it showed up in a campaign mailer promoting him for U.S. Senate.

The statement from the court, stating it “renounces the use” of the photo, said it learned late Thursday evening how the image, taken during a bicentennial celebration in August, was distributed.

“Neither the court nor its judges had any knowledge that the photograph would be distributed or used in a political context,” the statement issued through spokeswoman Beth Riggert said. “Furthermore, none of the judges did – or ever would – consent to their names, titles or likenesses being used in any political context.”

The statement did not indicate whether the mailer was sent directly by Schmitt’s campaign or if it was sent by a group supporting him in the Aug. 2 Republican primary. The court stated it would not comment beyond the statement issued Friday.

A twitter user who received the mailer posted photos that showed it was sent by American for Prosperity Action, which endorsed Schmitt in November.

Legal ethics in Missouri are policed by the Commission on the Retirement, Removal and Discipline for judges and the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, or OCDC. 

The judges could report themselves to the commission, because judges selected under the Nonpartisan Court Plan are forbidden to engage in political activity. The court could report Schmitt to the OCDC to determine if he violated any ethical code by the use of the official photo without permission.

“Missouri citizens should know that no Supreme Court judge ever would or could endorse a political candidate and this photograph should not be taken as such an endorsement despite the implication created by the mailer,” the statement read.

The image includes Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson, Judge Mary R. Russell and Judge W. Brent Powell standing with Schmitt in a law library with Missouri and U.S. flags in the background. The image was included in a gallery on Schmitt’s official office Facebook page and other social media sites.

“The court has asked the attorney general’s office to delete this photograph and any others like it from the office’s public or social media accounts to help prevent any further inappropriate use of such images,” the court’s statement read.

In a response to the court’s statement, Schmitt’s office did not address the possible ethics referral. Spokesman Chris Nuelle instead stated what the court knew – that the photo was produced at the expense of the Attorney General’s Office and distributed on social media.

“As is common practice amongst elected officials, the Attorney General’s Office has publicly posted thousands of pictures of the Attorney General at public events, including the Bicentennial event, across multiple social media channels,” Nuelle said.

Schmitt is one of 21 candidates seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. He has consistently polled near the top of the field along with former Gov. Eric Greitens and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler. Three other candidates, U.S. Rep. Billy Long, state Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz and St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey, are also registering support in polls.

The Schmitt campaign is not responsible for the mailer, campaign spokesman Rich Chrismer wrote in an email to The Independent.

“The mailer was an independent expenditure not authorized by Attorney General Eric Schmitt or his U.S. Senate campaign,” Chrismer wrote.

In response to the court’s statement, Schatz said he was not surprised that official resources are being used to promote Schmitt.

“Since day one, Eric Schmitt has viewed our justice system as a prop in his absurd campaign of self promotion,” Schatz said in a text to The Independent. “Yet another reason why we need to send a work horse, not a show horse to Washington, D.C.”

Long noted that if permission had been sought from the judges to use their likenesses ahead of producing the mailer, it would have been denied.

“Better to ask forgiveness than permission I suppose,” Long said.  Desperate times call for desperate measures. He has the bully pulpit, tremendous name I.D. and three St. Louis billionaires backing him but Greitens consistently outpolls him. He’s getting desperate.”

McCloskey said the use of the photograph is in the pattern of Schmitt seeking publicity with lawsuits over school mask rules and federal policy. He noted that Schmitt’s much-promoted lawsuit against China over the coronavirus has made no progress.

“Every time he decided to take that step up that step ladder he has used his office to promote that campaign,” McCloskey said.

The ethics referral is “absolutely” the right thing to do, said McCloskey, who is on probation with the disciplinary counsel after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for holding a gun outside his home during a police brutality protest in June 2020.

“I got my bar license sanctioned for doing no more than standing on my front porch and defending my Second Amendment rights,” McCloskey said.

Because it was produced by an outside group, Schmitt is supposed to have no knowledge of how he is being promoted. McCloskey said he is skeptical.

“I am a big believer in innocent until proven guilty but you have to be a wee bit suspicious,” he said.

Hartzler and Greitens did not respond to messages seeking comment.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.